by Ziad AbuZayyad
Land was and still is the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict in Palestine. Even prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the Zionist movement invested intensive efforts to obtain land from its Arab owners. The Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemeth le- Yisrael), for example, was established with the sole aim and role of buying land from the Arabs. Yet, in spite of these efforts, only a small percentage of land passed into Jewish hands, mostly by Arabs who at the time lived in neighboring Arab countries, such as Lebanon and others.
When the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181 of November 29, 1947, calling for the partition of Palestine, only 7 percent of the land was in Jewish hands; Palestinians owned the remaining 93 percent. In the wake of the Arab defeat in the 1948 war, the State of Israel was established on 78 percent of the total area of the land of Palestine, leaving the west bank of the River Jordan together with the Gaza Strip to Jordan and Egypt, respectively.
Immediately after the end of the 1948 war, Israelís campaign for the acquisition of Palestinian land took new shape. Instead of buying the land from its Palestinian owners, the newly created Jewish state passed laws which would enable it to obtain land through "legal" means. Accordingly, the 1948 Land Law was passed, which stipulated that any land not in active cultivation for three years, was considered "neglected" (matruk) and, upon the authority of the Ministry of Agriculture, its ownership was passed on to another party. This procedure was made possible through a unique cooperation between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Israeli Military Administration. The Palestinians who had not fled or had not been expelled during the 1948 war, but remained on their land within the Israeli state, were placed under administrative detention by the Israeli Military Administration. They were denied freedom of movement and were thus kept from cultivating their lands. These lands would later be declared "neglected" by the Ministry of Agriculture and would pass into Jewish ownership.
In 1950, Israel passed the Law of Absentee Property, which enabled it to expropriate millions of dunums (four dunums equal one acre) of Palestinian land and to pass them to the control of the Minhal Mekarkaei Yisrael (The Israel Lands Authority). Part of these lands belonged to Palestinians who had fled the country and had become refugees, but part also belonged to those who had remained in what became the State of Israel, but were moved by the Israeli authorities from their villages of origin and concentrated into other ones, where they would be under the tight control of the Israeli Military Administration. This earned them the status of "absentees"!
Subsequently, the Development Authority was founded in 1951. It had for role the exploitation of the lands of absentees, and was given the authority to transfer these lands to Keren Kayemeth or the State of Israel - but never to non-Jews. Indeed, to this day, Keren Kayemeth, the Israel Lands Authority, Amidar, and other bodies dealing with land go by one rule: no land can be transferred to non-Jews.
Today, the total area of the State of Israel is approximately 20 million dunums. Of this, 92 percent is totally closed to non-Jews. Furthermore, the Palestinian Arabs who remained in what became the State of Israel constituted 18 percent of the population and owned 25 percent of the land at the time of the establishment of the state. Today, they still make up 18 percent of the population - because the natural population growth among them is balanced by Jewish immigration into the country - but they hardly own 4 percent of the land. Accordingly, the share of every Jewish citizen within the State of Israel is 4.2 dunums, while that of Palestinians is 0.7 percent of a dunum per person.
Following its occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967, Israel used similar methods and tactics to expropriate Palestinian land and to transfer it to Jewish ownership. In the occupied territories, however, Israel does not enjoy the status of a state. It is an occupying power and has no right to claim unto itself the ownership of what is considered "state land." Legally, these lands belong either to Jordan, which was the ruling state there prior to 1967, or to the Palestinian people and the future State of Palestine.
This, however, has not ended the conflict over land and, clearly, has not stopped the Israeli authorities from grabbing more and more of it. They are proceeding with the expansion of existing Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, and with the extension of their fences to include additional land. Bulldozers work day and night to change the topography of the land and to create new facts on the ground. Zoning plans are drawn periodically, and fraudulent deals are still carried out for the buying of Palestinian property. All this raises a major question: What is the use of obtaining more and more land here and there? How can this Israeli policy be viewed as compatible with all the efforts that are being exerted for the achievement of peace between Israelis and Palestinians? Where does the problem between the two peoples really reside? Is it in who will have more land or who will feel more victimized? Or does it rather lie in how to realize justice for both peoples and to convince them that there is yet a chance for them to live in peace side by side?
One also questions the absence of equal justice for both peoples. What legal or moral grounds, for example, give a Jew, any Jew from any part of the world, the right to settle and live in occupied Palestinian land, while Palestinians are denied reciprocity, including the right to live even in Arab East Jerusalem? In fact, Israel considers the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem as foreigners who need residence permits to live in their own hometown. These can be arbitrarily revoked, leading to the- expulsion of their holders from their city.
These questions and many others are constantly raised and engender fear and bitterness among the Palestinian population. It is becoming increasingly obvious to them that they are being faced with a racist regime whose aim is to uproot them from their land and to replace them with Jews. The experience of the Arab Bedouins, who in 1950 were expelled from their own lands in the Negev and relocated to another spot in the occupied territories, is a striking evidence of this policy.
The Israeli people must come to terms with the fact that, on this land, another people is entitled to the same rights. The expropriation of more Palestinian land and the settling of Jews deep in the heart of the occupied territories will only complicate the situation by making impossible any geographical separation between Israel as a Jewish state (with a Jewish majority), and Palestine as a non-Jewish majority.
The current policy of the Israeli government will, in the long run, lead to a situation whereby, in the occupied territories, a majority of Palestinians will be ruled by a minority of Jews. This cannot be viable. It will be replaced by a binational state - but only after a protracted, painful and bloody struggle, causing great suffering on both sides.
The time has come to pause and question: Why all this suffering? Should not human lives be more valued than "one dunum here and one dunum there"? Unfortunately, this is becoming increasingly difficult with the wave of right-wing Jewish fundamentalism poisoning hearts and minds and undermining the forces of peace and moderation. Only a shock can bring people to their senses. Or a firm international stand.